So Much For Research Faculty

New NSF policies on faculty salaries:

A major revision of NSF's faculty salary reimbursement policy, to limit compensation for senior personnel to no more than two months of their regular salary in any one year from all NSF-funded grants

This pretty much eliminates any NSF funded research professors, as far as I can tell. Well it was a good run, peoples, but that rule change virtually assures that pseudo-professors like myself don't exist.

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Yeah, that qualifies as 'major' OK. Ouch.

[I wonder what % of grant costs that gets rid of. Must be a big chunk, no?]

How do they define "senior personnel"?

A. Senior Personnel

1. (co) Principal Investigator(s) -- the individual(s) designated by the proposer, and approved by NSF, who will be responsible for the scientific or technical direction of the project. NSF does not infer any distinction in scientific stature among multiple PIs, whether referred to as PI or co-PI. If more than one, the first one listed will serve as the contact PI, with whom all communications between NSF program officials and the project relating to the scientific, technical, and budgetary aspects of the project should take place. The PI and any identified co-PIs, however, will be jointly responsible for submission of the requisite project reports.

2. Faculty Associate (faculty member) -- an individual other than the Principal Investigator(s) considered by the performing institution to be a member of its faculty or who holds an appointment as a faculty member at another institution, and who will participate in the project being supported.

The relevant part of the new grant proposal guideline is:

(a) Senior Project Personnel Salaries and Wages Policy.
NSF regards research as one of the normal functions of faculty members at institutions of higher education. Compensation for time normally spent on research within the term of appointment is deemed to be included within the faculty member's regular organizational salary.

As a general policy, NSF limits salary compensation for senior project personnel to no more than two months of their regular salary in any one year. This limit includes salary compensation received from all NSF-funded grants. This effort must be documented in accordance with the applicable cost principles. If anticipated, any compensation for such personnel in excess of two months must be disclosed in the proposal budget, justified in the budget justification, and must be specifically approved by NSF in the award notice.

These same general principles apply to other types of non-academic organizations.

NSF award funds may not be used to augment the total salary or salary rate of faculty members during the period covered by the term of faculty appointment or to reimburse faculty members for consulting or other time in addition to a regular full-time organizational salary covering the same general period of employment. Exceptions may be considered under certain NSF programs, e.g., science and engineering education programs for weekend and evening classes, or work at remote locations. If anticipated, any intent to provide salary compensation above the base salary must be disclosed in the proposal budget, justified in the budget justification, and must be specifically approved by NSF in the award notice.

What was the rule before? I'd always heard at most 2 months summer salary on NSF. Did that only apply previously to people with a teaching position?

There was no system wide rule, as far as I know, but different divisions have had a "2 months summer salary" rule. As far as I know those rules were not, however, per grant.

Does that mean you were 12 months of salary before on an NSF grant? I didn't know this was possible (though as a national lab person I can't get any NSF money). If so, wow, that is terrible, this really destroys the setup you had. I hope you get a viable alternative position.

Hey Matt, I have some other sources of funding, including that I get paid some if I teach. But if it goes to 2 months summer over all NSF grants, I'll be hurting. Ah well, I've always known I was doomed, and have started looking for jobs anyway, so in the end it probably won't directly hit me.

But I know others who might be hit hard.

I'm a case where this really gets strange.

I'm currently PI on an NSF grant, even though I am technically only staff rather than faculty. So if I'm reading the above definitions right, I could in principle be 100% supported by NSF money as long as none of the grants listed me as PI or co-PI. But as soon as I become a PI or co-PI on one grant, boom, the two month rule applies to all of my NSF funding. I'd imagine the same applies to anybody at a non-government lab (there are a few such that do work in my field).

I do have some other funding options (most obviously NASA), but I'm in a field that includes many university (as well as non-government lab) types on soft money. That's going to make the competition for these other pots of money that much tougher. And of course it's even harder than usual these days to get a tenure track job.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 Nov 2008 #permalink

Do you have reliable confirmation that your interpretation is correct (for example, from someone at NSF)? My reading of it is less dire: it certainly allows the possibility of your sort of position, with NSF approval, so the real question is how willing they are to approve it.

I don't think this is intended for your situation (although it might take it out inadvertently). I think it's intended to prevent abuses of the system. For example, someone can try to acquire five months of NSF support through various grants, and then do all of his/her teaching in one semester and get double pay (NSF + university) for the other semester. This is intended to rule that out, by establishing that doing research is part of one's job as a faculty member, and that concentrating one's teaching simply moves the university-supported research time into the remaining period, without somehow creating free time that can then be taken advantage of for additional pay.

So my hope is that NSF will eliminate this sort of abuse, while approving requests that are clearly non-abusive.

Good luck!

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 Nov 2008 #permalink

I have a sneaking suspicion Anonymous is right. I've gotten NSF before, though on a completely different type of grant, but I had always thought that 2 month thing was in there primarily to keep people honest. I'd check with the program director at the NSF before writing it off completely. Nonetheless, I quite enjoy not being beholden to the government for my livelihood anymore.

>> And of course it's even harder than usual these days to >> get a tenure track job.

Only if you're extremely picky. I was part of a hiring committee recently filling two tenure track positions. We had three people turn down our offers of employment.

Dave: Definitely call your program officer and find out for certain.

My inclination is to agree with Ian and Anonymous. The NSF might be assuming that most full-time faculty are paid by a 9 month contract, leaving 3 months of the year unpaid. They are probably just trying to avoid double-dippers.

Eric: Yeah, I could demote myself and get around the rules :) Strange system, eh?

Anonymous and Ian and Sandra: No I haven't talked to anyone in NSF yet. We're trying to get clarification. Also I think this only applies to grants starting in January, so for me right now it doesn't matter. Of course if I apply for any future grants it does apply. And yes, it does say I could always ask for an exception. But in a world where everyone is looking for reasons not to fund you, such an exception is certainly a good reason (If the researcher is so good, why isn't he or she a real faculty member. And yes I am speaking from experience here :) )

Is this an unintended consequence?
I can see why NSF might decide they do not want to support faculty teaching buyouts, at least not without explicit exception from the program officer.
But, a lot of universities allow senior research associates to be grant PIs, and those are long term postdocs, not "research faculty" or "scientist" positions - the latter are generally intended as parallel tracks to tenure lines, but without explicit teaching obligations under general university FTE limits - these allow departments to have senior researchers without clashing with university FTE caps, and to staff associated research institutions and long term research centers.
Losing those would be a major unintended consequence - the NSF funds a lot of "center" type places which host senior researchers on 100% funding on multi-year grants.

We've been getting pretty harsh guidance on this over here though.

I just got the following update from our Office of Sponsored Research:

"Research faculty" should be treated the same as before.
"Research faculty" (i.e., the research scientists and similar
individuals that normally are supported by sponsored funding) are not
considered to be "Senior Project Personnel" in the context of the
revised salary policy. While Senior Project Personnel as a general
policy are charged to projects using the two-month metric, research
faculty salaries regularly exceed the two-month metric and are charged
over the entire calendar or academic year. Prior to the policy revision
this was the case, and under the revised policy, nothing is changed.

This appears to contradict the above posted definition that includes PIs as "Senior Project Personnel." So you should definitely check with your program officer about this. Things may be OK, but I'd want that in writing.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 21 Nov 2008 #permalink